On the face of it, it would seem like I don’t have a right to write about oppression and theologies of liberation. That is what my youth group leader in high school would have said.
We were doing a Bible study on suffering, and the youth leader commented that none of us kids really knew the meaning of suffering. We lived in a suburb, most of us in detached family homes. Each of our families had more than one car, some of them big. We went to good schools. We always had food on the table. Our parents had money and paid for stuff. We were not poor.
I was quite offended at the time. Maybe we weren’t starving, and we had a roof over our heads, but I felt that this guy didn’t really understand the ‘suffering’ of young people in our generation. We may have been going to good schools, but the message we were getting was that if you don’t do everything and succeed at all of it, you’d miss your chance to ascend the ladder. Each rung had its own challenges. If you failed at one thing, you’d slip off the ladder: college, graduate school, entry-level professional job, promotion, rising to the top, retirement. Death is usually the last thing in that sequence, but nobody really talked about that. I think most people didn’t factor in its place on the ladder.
You could say that the message of meaningless precarity was the oppression, and I didn’t think the youth group leader took this kind of suffering seriously enough. The truth, of course, is that the youth group leader was right about our position of privilege, and I couldn’t see it, having never known another life outside of it. In fact, calling the narrative of competitive advancement into question was probably as immature as I could get. That was just reality, the way things were, how life for the middle-class and up simply is. The other path was downward, and he knew it. I should have too. He, like many of the people older than the high-schoolers in the Chinese evangelical church that I attended, had made it out of relative poverty in Hong Kong. He had done well in school, gotten himself into an American college as an international student, and crawled his way into becoming an accountant at a video game firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. He had known suffering, and he knew the path out of it. We ungrateful privileged high-schoolers did not. I do not say that sarcastically. Truly, we did not know how thankful we should have been.
Our youth group leader’s story checked out for a good many of the uncles and aunties at that church, and at the churches before that one that I had attended. Whether from Hong Kong or Taiwan, the narrative was similar. Having grown up in relative poverty in developing Asian economies, these people worked their way into a school of some sort, usually in North America, and oftentimes, they proceeded into graduate school. With advanced degrees in hand, they flocked to where the jobs were. In the late 1980s and 1990s, that was the San Francisco Bay Area. My dad had been head-hunted as a civil engineer from Vancouver to work in a small geotechnical company in Sunol, so that is how we ended up living in Fremont. He’d drive every day across Niles Canyon where Charlie Chaplin used to make his films to get to work.
My friends’ parents had similar stories. Some were working in computers, whether software development or as distributors for companies like Acer. Others were nuclear researchers at Berkeley. I’ll bet a few were defense contractors and wouldn’t tell me. Most became the richest generation their families had ever known, and some managed to move their parents to the Bay Area from Asia to live with them. They bought big houses, drove more than one car, feasted daily on meals they’d only been able to dream about since they were children, and put their kids through great schools by strategizing about which school districts they should live in. The only times they really got into politics was when the school districts were rezoned, cutting some of them out, which really ticked them off because they had spent all their hard-earned money on the educational success of their children.
Their past lives, in other words, were suffering, and they had suffered their way out of poverty so that their kids could stand on their shoulders and not have to suffer. The path to generational success was all laid out. All that their kids had to do was to do well in school, participate in extracurricular activities that would add to their success (like playing musical instruments, participating in sports, and practicing speed math and reading at Kumon), and ascend the ladder that their parents had built.
Church reinforced this narrative. At my childhood Taiwanese Chinese church (meaning that it was full of Kuomintang cadres, not Taiwanese democracy activists), the revivalist senior pastor would declare from the pulpit, 哪裡有基督教， 哪裡就發達！Where there is Christianity, there will be development! The uncles and aunties teaching Sunday school would reinforce this message: what they wanted for us more than anything was our success. This is what God wanted. This is what the Bible taught. This is what we prayed for. When the daughter of the chair of the deacon board got into Berkeley, he cried tears of joy and screamed exuberantly while cradling her in his arms, repeating nonstop, Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord! Thank you, Lord!
But to paraphrase Lisa Park, not all was well with the model minority. It might have seemed simple enough to follow the path of prosperity paved by our parents. It was a known secret, though, that every kid who participated in the local piano competitions was an alcoholic. I have seen people leading praise-and-worship at the youth group while stoned. Friends would tell me stories about buying speed to be able to concentrate on their homework, SAT prep, and college applications. I am not sure how many people were actually having sex with each other, but teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections may have been mitigated by an unexpected savior: pornography. Six hours south of where we lived, honors students in Orange County murdered Stuart Tay in his backyard just because they could. In 2002, the director Justin Lin made a film loosely based on this called Better Luck Tomorrow. It starred John Cho in the role of the murder victim.
My story in all of this is a little bit weird because I always felt a bit like an outsider to this rat race. Certainly, I played piano and trumpet, but that was just for fun, and I was never part of the competition scene. I was very bad at sports and never went to Kumon. I read voraciously, but it was all Narnia and Tolkien and other stuff that had action-packed plots and generally good characters I could identify with. The most model minority thing I ended up doing was writing a bunch of short stories and crafting two fantasy novels that aren’t even that good (and are certainly never going to be published). I ended up telling a Catholic priest at my high school that I had done all this work, though, so we started a literary magazine called Sea Changes. In general, I also got good grades and had a decent SAT score, so for the most part, people left me alone.
But even I had some strange encounters with some of the uncles and aunties. The most vivid memory I had about this happened the same day I went out with all of my friends to see Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I am a sucker for white Manic Pixie Dream Girl characters in movies, so I really liked the movie because, like Anakin, I too thought Padmé was an angel. It weirded me out to learn soon afterward that my friends didn’t like it that much. I have now come to accept that because I have crushes on Manic Pixie Dream Girls, I will always like movies that everybody else hates, like Garden State (which also starred Natalie Portman) and Elizabethtown. I also stuffed myself with buttered popcorn, so I had no appetite for the big Chinese dinner that the uncles and aunties took us to next, which was unfortunate.
I can’t remember how we started talking about college, but I recall mentioning at the table that my dream school at the time was the University of California, Davis. I was familiar with the campus because our church used to rent out a bunch of their buildings for summer retreats. I had good memories there, and I learned that it was a pretty good school. Maybe I could do an English major there, and then perhaps I’d go to law school and do what Matlock did on television: defend innocent people, and lock up the killers.
The uncles and aunties shook their heads. Be good, they said, go to Harvard. I didn’t even know some of those adults at that table. But they told me what to do, and my heartburn got worse. I think I even went to throw up in the bathroom, but all that came out was gas and phlegm. I suspect my physically violent reaction didn’t just have to do with too much popcorn, though that certainly contributed to it. Instead, it was more like I had quite nicely and deftly avoided hearing this message from too many people at church by doing well enough to not raise any questions so that I could really do things I enjoy. I did that because I knew enough of my friends and acquaintances who had internalized this message and had been driven off the deep end – usually not quite to mental illness, but often to drugs, alcohol, pornography, sex, and all that other secretively dark stuff. At least I was relatively sane.
As we left the restaurant, we saw two very obese white people kissing in the parking lot. My friends made fun of them. The couple had no idea, as they were lost in love in their own world without a care in the world. I remember thinking that perhaps I might never be rich or step up the ladder that the parental generation had provided. Maybe I’d get fat. I could possibly lose the rat race. But I wanted what these two people had.
At this point, it hadn’t dawned on me that this rat race thing might be a problem with the Chinese Christians in whose community I was raised. It’s not like when you grow up Chinese Christian that your entire life is spent with church people. I, for example, went to a Christian school in Fremont where plenty of people who were not evangelical Protestant also went. The general idea for everybody was that we should try to do well. I suppose in looking back, I could point out some of us Chinese and Korean students who did better than others, but in thinking through that cast of characters, most were generally non-religious or vaguely Buddhist, their parents putting them through Christian school so that they’d learn to be decent, moral people without taking the religion too seriously. They weren’t my only friends, but that was because they were also mostly girls who had cooties. Then they grew up, and the sexual tension got weirder. Either way, I preferred hanging out with my guy friends, who were not all Asian. We had a detective club in elementary school. Then we also grew up and started talking about girls, which you can really only do with other guys. We also played a lot of video games. These were the days of Goldeneye 007 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time, so the games were actually interesting while remaining unrealistic. I do not play video games anymore because they are too realistic.
In other words, it really never occurred to me until quite late that I was part of a community that was typecast as a model minority. When I did realize it, I thought at least people who were smart would be able to see through how the rat race was a bit of a farce and that maybe this was a story that you told other people to convince them you were working hard when in reality, all that mattered was the freedom to cultivate friendships that need not be strategic, enjoy the experience of the world (including the unrealistic virtual one in video games), and eventually lose yourself in love with someone special. I couldn’t imagine that people were ambitious enough to plot out every detail of their lives to be part of the ladder of success. In fact, when I met a few lawyers who told me that that’s what they did, I decided not to be one anymore. My dad helped me think through that, and he put it in my head that maybe I should still be an English major, but perhaps I’d grow up to be a church historian. I didn’t know that there was even such a thing as ‘church history,’ but he said he had studied it in seminary, so there had to be people who taught it. Maybe I could become one of those teachers, even a professor. I didn’t tell him at the time, but when he said that, I remembered the weirdest part of seventh-grade world history focused on something called the ‘Byzantine Empire,’ which had a church called the ‘Orthodox Church’ where people made unrealistic pictures called ‘icons’ and acted like they were live-action role-playing the fantasy fiction that I loved reading and writing. I figured that my dad would never have heard of these people (wrong I was), and that nobody else that I knew would know of a church so weird (wrong again), so I kept it to myself: my ambition was to grow up to become a Byzantine church historian.
Then I made the mistake of telling my youth group leader, the accountant at the video game firm. I thought he would be sympathetic, as he was a guy and we had talked a lot about girls. But as I spoke, he furrowed his brow. I think it’s not very practical, he then said.
He then began describing what he meant by practical. There were a set of professions that were known to make money. Law had been one of them, so he had been very approving. But medicine was another good field, and so was accounting. Business was good too. What you have to do is to strategize, then. If you want to get into one of these fields, you have to start from your college days to get yourself into one of these fields. Well, that’s why I still want to be an English major, I said, as if it were obvious that close-reading and good writing skills would translate well into these professions, as well as my fantasy academic job. Shockingly, he disapproved of that too. I could be a history major instead, I offered, as maybe the problem was that I needed to learn facts, not fiction. He remained unconvinced.
Alongside the post-Star Wars encounter, this was one of the weirdest conversations I have ever had. I was so weirded out that I went home to ask my dad what had happened. It was he, after all, who had planted the church history idea in my head. He is also a guy who gets things done. Impractical is the opposite of my father.
Dad looked like he had a lightbulb go off in his head. Of course, he said, because this is how Chinese people think. That was even weirder. As far as I was concerned, literature and history were the pride of Chinese people. My mom was a Chinese literature major and English language minor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Chinese churches have always tried to get her to teach in their Chinese schools just because of her undergraduate credentials. My grandfather told me Chinese popular stories, and for my whole life, Chinese people have been trying to get me to recite their poetry. There was no way this was a Chinese thing, I thought.
My father disagreed. He told me that in the ideal Chinese family, there were really a set of professions that you’d get yourself into in order to become successful. It was just that he was a little bit more open-minded. The mentality, as he described it, was sort of like the village kid going off to take an imperial examination. He’d have to study very hard and even bring a rope to hang himself if he were unsuccessful. Eventually, he would become an official. That was the meaning of success.
That was the first time I’d ever heard that story, so I found that very hard to believe as well. My parents were very insistent on it, though, but I wasn’t buying it because they were Chinese, and they seemed to be quite open-minded to a life outside this narrative. What I did not connect explicitly, though, is that they were dealing with their own demons with the Chinese church. It turns out that it’s not just the success-driven children of Chinese American parents who are sexually crazy. Erotic excess can also be found in the parental generation, with devastating consequences for their churches. A few years before, my dad had represented the entire pastoral staff when the senior pastor’s protégé had run off with the mother of one of my best friends. As I’ve written before, this had coincided in the 1990s with a string of sex scandals at Chinese evangelical churches in the Bay Area. This pattern had enabled my dad to write a dissertation at a white seminary on pastoral sexual misconduct in Chinese churches. It was a family project, and I had done quite a bit of the typing, as well as some of the secondary research. However, much of the interesting reading had been in the evangelical literature on sexual affairs, pornography, and pastoral misconduct. I learned later that the white people at the seminary also wanted some stuff on ‘Chinese culture’ too, which meant ‘Confucianism,’ which meant, ‘Look at all those really strict Chinese people and their authoritarian ways.’ They had assigned my dad to read the Chinese Reformed author Samuel Ling’s Chinese Way of Doing Things, which has some of this stuff about authority and making kids do the practical professions in it. This had led to my parents thinking that they were not really that Chinese.
I’m not sure how much of it I bought even then, but as I poked my head around school, church, and my extracurricular activities, I suddenly saw it everywhere. At least in popular perception, there was this thing that I had not seen where if you’re Chinese, you’re automatically supposed to be smart and ambitious and strategic. Part of it was just assumed by everyone. Part of it was parental pressure. Part of it was self-motivation. All of it was very strange to me, except that nobody would believe me because I had the grades and activities and motivation to be described as somewhat part of this phenomenon too.
But there was no real history to it. Maybe it had something to do with culture, but there was no explanation for it. I spent most of AP U.S. History learning about Asian Americans being victimized, like the Chinese working on the railroad, the exclusion acts, and the incarceration of the Japanese during the Second World War. But that was not the history I was looking for. I had no words for it.
At the end of AP U.S. History, the teacher said that we could do a project on anything that interested us. I was interested in filling in this gap, although I had no idea where to begin looking. It occurred to me, however, that Fremont Public Library might have books about ‘Asian Americans,’ and they did. On a shelf, there were three books: Sucheng Chan’s Asian Americans: An Interpretive History, Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore, and Roger Daniels’s Asian America. I figured that what I was looking for would be toward the tail end of their histories, and I was right: they each described the phenomenon I was thinking about model minority, the portrayal of Asian Americans as an idealized population that does well in school and achieves its success in mainstream society.
I wish I could say that this project changed my life. It did, in many ways. I interviewed a Chinese Christian intellectual for it. I watched Better Luck Tomorrow. I made a website on Geocities. I even sent an email to the renowned Asian American historian Ron Takaki, and he responded. But because I was stuck on trying to tie ‘Confucian culture’ to the model minority, I only read the books for as much as they would tell me about that, which was not a lot. I now know that I did not really read the books at all because when I gave Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore to my dad for his birthday, he read the entire thing on a plane ride and came back to me telling me how moved he was by all of the stories of suffering he had learned about in the book. I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn’t read the book.
The stories I have just told, in other words, open a new dimension in my conversion to liberation theology. When I set out to write this series, I thought I was simply going to move from Radical Orthodoxy to liberation theology via psychoanalysis in the Eastern Catholic church I joined, with my thinking refined by teaching Asian American studies. But that narrative doesn’t say much about why I got into Radical Orthodoxy in the first place, or how I flitted about in evangelicalism and Anglicanism before that. It turns out that my motivation in getting into all of these theological fads was because by the end of high school, I was convinced that the Chinese church – by which I am only referring to the evangelicals of my own experience – was itself an oppressive institution. In many ways, it was: as far as I can tell from this story, it turns out that we had a whole religion built around the model minority, an entire theology of Asian developmentalism that resulted in quite a bit of sexual excess that would explode every once in a while among the parental generation and all the time in ours.
But it follows that if that was my analysis, then the path to liberation would have been to try to find a true Christian theology. What I did not know is that that would mean that I was trying to find freedom in white evangelical theologies. It’s that series of mistakes that led me to Radical Orthodoxy that I’ll tell in the next post, before my finale to try to account for my own liberation praxis on the Eve of the Nativity.